The rubbish dump of pop’s past is littered with almost countless lost artistes, forgotten careers and one hit wonders. There are as many fascinating stories to be found behind these perceived failures as there is behind the great chart successes. One such story that came to my attention recently is the tale of Susan Fassbender, who I believe warrants a second look and listen if only because for British TV viewers of a certain age, she’ll be remembered for several appearances on Chegger’s Plays Pop and The Multi-coloured Swap Shop. That at least gives some of us a nostalgic glow, but the sad irony is that despite this association with an innocent childhood past, a little digging reveals that Fassbender’s life later took a darker path.
As DJ Steve Wright admits, in the edition of Top of the Pops 2 in which her archive footage is featured, Fassbender was and is an enigma. This enigmatic quality is probably just down to the fact that she had a brief moment in the spotlight, came from such an everyday Northern background and then went back to it, leaving only her few singles for us to recall her by. She was a pretty woman, suggesting to me an image of what Nana Mouskouri might look like if she’d frequented ‘80s discos; her glasses were almost always in place, putting her at visual odds with the other female pop stars of the time, and accentuating her attractive ordinariness.
Apparently born near Bradford in West Yorkshire, Fassbender later teamed up with her best friend Kay Russell to produce their short lived recording career. She had studied classical piano, clarinet and timpani (later playing synthesizer); so says her Wikipedia page. Is this accurate? Maybe so, but with Fassbender there is always that element of doubt; after all we’re dealing with a girl who came and went from the public eye in such a short space of time. That is perhaps the key to her continuing (very) cult fame: if Susan could make it onto Top of the Pops, then surely we could have had a chance as well. Both she and Kay Russell looked as happy as pigs in muck when they appeared on the show (with fellow band members Gary Walsh and Mike Close); it was refreshingly unpretentious and gleeful. They even got to visit Europe and do the TV trail there; how glamorous it must have seemed to two girls from Bradford. There’s something about seeing them in that old footage that makes me wish them well, and is perhaps why I feel they’re ripe for re-discovery. It’s a happy image to see in these economically gloomy times.
But to be honest, there isn’t a great deal to re-appraise. Fassbender only released three singles, and she was dropped by her record label before an album materialised. After Kay Russell had played with Bradford New Wave band Ulterior Motives, she teamed up with Susan and they wrote lyrics and music together, eventually being signed to indie label Criminal Records, and were later signed by CBS. It was the single “Twilight Cafe”, released at the end of 1980, to which they practically owe whatever fame they have. An upbeat, catchy number, “Twilight Cafe” peaked at No.21 in the UK singles chart in early 1981. Two other singles followed, credited to both Fassbender and Russell (the vaguely ska-sounding “Stay” and the inane “Merry-Go-Round”; neither were anywhere near as good as “Twilight Cafe”, and there the quandary lies. Were Fassbender and Russell able to produce the more polished and sophisticated work that a long term chart career would demand? Unfortunately, we’ll never know. Their existing music sounds slightly out of step with many of the other hits from the early ‘80s, despite their use of electronics, and was certainly a world away from any of the fashionable acts of the time. Their slightly silly and simplistic lyrics were never going to bring them any big praise, and their music was unsophisticated, but their melodies were extremely catchy and their fun appeal is wonderful to appreciate on Youtube all these decades later. The world would be slightly worse off without “Twilight Cafe” I think. It’s sad to think that they could have had a longer career, and that their song writing could have matured, but I don’t think either of them had the real driving passion to stick with a music career, deciding instead to concentrate on raising a family. Although both Fassbender and Russell continued to write together, nothing came of these later collaborations and they never recorded together again, despite remaining firm friends.
As Kay Russell mentioned in a recent blog (and later repeated on Wikipedia): “Years ago, Susan was my best mate, and we wrote songs both together and separately. It was a bit weird and strange – we seemed to be able to write in ANY style, when we were writing together. We did form the band, but the “powers that be” tried to tell us in which “style” we should write and perform, in order to make money. So, when there was a meeting of various A & R guys where we were rehearsing, these people said, “Give us something we can sell”. So we tried to do it, and that’s how “Twilight Cafe” came about”.
31 years after “Twilight Cafe” was a hit, I can look at Susan Fassbender as an inspirational story of what happens when someone from an unassuming background gets a chance to shine and do something extraordinary, even if only for a little while. We all have it in us, I think. In Susan’s case, perhaps she gave up on her dreams too soon, and ultimately gave in to her demons. The end of Susan’s story is not a happy one; she committed suicide in 1991.
She was just 32.
Susan’s three singles with Kay are featured with TV footage on Youtube, along with B-sides and some unreleased demos. If anyone has any further information on Susan and her career, do please get in touch.